COMMENT:

We've seen lots of examples of live sports streaming going wrong over the past year, including Optus' disastrous FIFA World Cup effort and CBS's problems with the recent Super Bowl.

Just 219 days out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Spark is still playing its cards close to its chest regarding both the Spark Sport app it will use for cup matches and other sports coverage, and its "plan B" if its World Cup stream encounters technical difficulties.

The telco says it has a fall-back plan. And Lord knows it would have to put its boss Simon Moutter in protective custody if it doesn't - this is the ABs we're talking about.

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But that it's not ready to share it.

Below are some of Spark's options if it experiences problems during the cup (which former Spark partner Tim Martin says is inevitable), or if it loses its nerve ahead of the event and wants to cover its bets.

As things stand, a Spark spokesman told the Herald, just last week, that: "The Spark Sport app will be the only way to watch every World Cup game."

But that still leaves wiggle room for the various "Plan B" options listed below. And, of course, the telco could still change tack if it has an attack of nerves before the September 20 kick off.

1. Screen all the All Blacks' games on TVNZ

One of the few concrete things we know about Spark's World Cup plans is that its free-to-air partner, TVNZ, will screen seven games, including the opening match (which will see hosts Japan play Russia) and the final. The state broadcaster will offer delayed coverage of a "selected" number of other games.

All going well, the All Blacks will play seven games - four pool matches, a quarter final, a semi, then the final or third-place play-off.

So TVNZ is already in a position to match Sky's approach in 2015, when it screened every All Blacks game free via Prime - albeit with pool games via delayed coverage.

TVNZ screening every All Blacks game live, or at least the semi and finals live, would limit the Spark's exposure to a PR disaster. The Herald understands TVNZ and Spark met last week to finalise just such a deal - and that it wil involve All Black pool games screening live on the Spark then delayed an hour on TVNZ, with the semis and final live.

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There would still be risk, however. It was a Socceroos pool game in the FIFA World Cup that saw Aussie telco Opus' stream fall over, and the decision soon after to transfer all games to free-to-air broadcaster, with the loss of face and refunds that involved. A streaming blunder during, say, the All Blacks' pool game against South Africa would see Spark shareholders immediately get the willies, and heat from the Beehive, among other sources. The pressure would be on to bite the bullet and broadcast everything via TVNZ.

TVNZ and Spark could potentially share ad revenue from All Blacks games, but Spark (which paid for rights by itself) has already pledged "TVNZ won't break to ads in live game time".

And Spark's Moutter has said his company plans to make the vast majority of its World Cup revenue by selling Spark Sport app subscriptions (in one interview, Moutter said a World Cup pass could around $100 - the telco has since pulled back on stating exact figure. It has said there will be the option to buy access to individual games).

TVNZ is building pay-per-view capability into its ondemand service - but that option would face the same capacity crush as the Spark Sport app and, similarly, is fast running out of time for adequate user-testing and a familiarity period ahead of September's kickoff.

2. Partner with Sky

If Spark wants to ease the load on its app, or offer an option for those not within reach of ultrafast broadband while still generating subscription revenue, it could partner with Sky TV instead of TVNZ.

The opening game and finals could be on Sky's free-to-air Prime, with other games on Sky's paid channels or Fanpass app, which supports pay-per-view.

Spark and Sky have, of course, emerged as sparring partners in sports rights as the telco builds a stable of content that so far includes World Cup Rugby, Formula One, English Premier League football, the World Rally Championship, FIH series hockey and some NBA games. And Spark's Lightbox competes against Sky's Neon in the streaming TV series and movie market.

But the pair have also co-operated to a degree behind the scenes. A case in point - the wholesale pact that allows Spark to offer Sky TV's Fanpass app to its customers for just $30 a month, a $26 discount on Fanpass' per-month pricing for those who sign on for six months, and a whopping $70 off Fanpass' casual monthly pricing. That's some close co-operation right there.

And we also have the example of the UK, where Sky competes fiercely with BT when football rights are auctioned, but also offers BT Sport channels on its platform (which add £20+ a month to a Sky UK bill).

3. Offer every game free via TVNZ, but only in certain areas

TVNZ can broadcast different content to different regions - as it used to do for regional news and still does for geo-targetted advertising campaigns.

But this is a broad-strokes solution that doesn't neatly match the pockets of the country that still lack ultrafast broadband via the UFB or RBI rollouts.

It's also possible that a gitch could hit everybody who uses a certain brand of smart TV, or everyone around the country who uses a certain ISP that sees its backhaul swamped.

Or that Spark gets hit by a blizzard of phone calls from a certain area after a game kicks off, but it's not clear if there's a network problem in that area or just a bunch of people struggling to understand wi-fi as they grapple with getting video from a broadband feed on to their telly, improperly sharing passwords or just generally confused.

And then there's the issue of data caps. Spark could decide to exclude games from data caps on its plans, but it holds only a minority of the ISP market. Most Kiwi households now have unlimited data plans, but some 30 per cent do not - and if they want to stream rugby games every day during the cup they will quickly spill over their monthly limit and start racking up extra charges, or get their connection throttled.

What's the plan for rural?

Way back in April 2018, when Spark first revealed it had won Rugby World Cup 2019 rights, the telco said in a statement: "The vast majority of New Zealanders can and do already access streaming services very effectively and that number continues to grow with UFB and RBI programmes roll-outs continuing. However, we are very mindful that in late 2019, some people may still not have adequate coverage to stream the matches at home.

"We want to do our best to give as many New Zealanders as possible to watch - so we are looking at a range of options. We're not able to give any details right now."

As I write, it's still not able to give details, for all its working groups and study parties to Optus and meetings with ISP. It will need to soon, if it's to have any shot of a seamless stream and avoid the ultimate fall-back of shovelling everything onto TVNZ.

As things stand, no safety net

For his part, Moutter is fond of pointing out examples of where streaming has worked for a mass audience, including the 4.3 million people in the UK who watched England's FIFA World Cup final against Croatia last year.

But that was in a situation where it wasn't watch-the-stream or bust. Most watched England v Croatia via a regular telly, with regular BBC coverage an option for those whose broadband failed. As things stand, Spark will be flying without a safety net, at least for some games.

A Spark spokeswoman told said last night, "We have not yet confirmed which Rugby World Cup games will be screened on TVNZ. We will do so in due course."

She added, "We've been clear from the start that a sports streaming service won't be available to every home in New Zealand. A decent broadband service is a pre-requisite for watching Spark Sport.

"As with previous Rugby World Cups, our free to air partnership with TVNZ will provide access to some of the key games that Kiwis most want to watch."

Spark has yet to tell shareholders how much it bid to secure rights to the World Cup and other sports, or how much money it's putting into its efforts to stream them. Moutter says they'll be an update at the company's first financial results after the cup, expected mid-February 2020.